Americas / Youth Activism

Is Chilean Education for Sale?

In the largest series of political demonstrations in Chile since the call for a return to democracy in 1990, the current student-led education reform movement has been dominating the Chilean political scene. Thousands of Chilean students have taken to the streets demanding large-scale systematic educational reforms, ranging from calls for free public education, increased state support for higher education, more equitable admissions processes, the end of for-profit education and freedom from the neoliberal education policies employed by authoritarian leader Augusto Pinochet. Both violent and non-violent protests have occurred in cities including Valparaíso, Concepción, Temuco, Valdivia and Santiago.

Since the democratic transition over two decades ago, Chile has stood out in Latin America for its rapid growth, social progress and political stability. Growth, however, has not come without costs. Increased productivity in Chilean society has caused a dramatic spike in demand for higher education. That being said, the accessibility to quality education, as well as other state-subsidized benefits, varies tremendously between socioeconomic strata. Many Chileans point to the prevailing neoliberal policies imposed during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship as poignant facilitators of social inequalities. Large-scale privatization of the Chilean education system is a practical way to neutralize and meet the increase in demand without major financial strain on the state. However, neoliberal education has resulted in institutional segmentation, exclusion, and discrimination.

The student education movement recently gained momentum during the conservative presidency of Sebastián Piñera. A highly succesful businessman, President Piñera, whose presidential term began in January 2010 and ended in December 2013, was the first billionaire to be elected President of Chile. Accused of running the country like a corporation instead of a state, Piñera’s right wing policies have driven many youth activists even further left and doused fuel on the growing student movement. In late 2011, the Piñera administration made a meager attempt to squash the student movement by ordering a military draft, calling 57,000 18-year-olds to immediate obligatory military service. By the end of his term in December, he had the lowest popularity ratings of any Chilean president since the demise of Pinochet’s dictatorship roughly 21 years ago.

Promising major educational reforms and the establishment of free public universities, socialist Michelle Bachelet dominated the presidential election in December, running away with 62.5 percent of votes. Elected for her first term in 2006, Bachelet is Chile’s first female president. She served from 2006-2010 and is now returning to office for her second, non-consecutive term as president. Despite failing to achieve any major reform during her first term, she still managed to leave office with a superbly high approval rating of 84 percent. Many Chileans are excited that President Bachelet is back in office.

Before infamous Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, rose to power in the early seventies, public universities in Chile were entirely controlled and subsidized by the state. Pinochet, however, debunked the entire education system and slashed central control and funding of public schools. Hiding under the guise of “neoliberalism,” Pinochet declared that achievement at the university level was low because there was no competition between schools. Thus, he created a large system of private universities that were accompanied by vouchers and subsidies. The idea was to create an educational model based on the neoliberal ideals of free market competition, minimal government intervention and individuals acting as rational economic actors.

However, instead of advancing achievement like Pinochet had hoped, the only competition that was realized between these private universities was the competition for potential tuition payers, also known as students. Universities began advertising directly to students on television, on subways, on billboards, etc. The decrease of federal spending on schools increased the emphasis placed on revenue generation, making Chilean universities significantly more dependent on private investments. This extensive commodification of higher education reserved the best educations for those who could afford steep tuitions.

The notoriously poor quality of higher education in Chile has also not improved. Inadequate funding has forced universities to increase interest rates on student loans and cut costs by hiring more adjunct and part-time professors as well as increasing class size. In 2013, Chile only had two universities on the Academic Ranking of World Universities’ “Top 500 Universities” list. The United States had 163 universities on the same list.

The combination of poor education quality, colossal social inequality and limited state intervention has incited opposition in other parts of Latin America as well. In March 2011, for example, the Santos administration in Colombia tried to pass neoliberal education reform. However, the proposed legislation was met with opposition similar in magnitude to concurrent student demonstrations in Chile. The Colombian administration was forced to withdraw the proposal and little has been accomplished in the past two years since the proposal was shut down. Unequal access to quality education in Colombia remains the status quo.

Meanwhile, other states in the region have increased federal support for public education. Argentina, for instance, increased spending on education from 12 percent of total state expenditure in 2003 to 14 percent in 2009. Public universities in Argentina are tuition free, open to anyone and considered more prestigious than their private competitors. That being said, Argentina also has a 73 percent dropout rate—one of the highest dropout rates in the world.

Brazil has also increased public spending on education from 10.5 percent of the state’s total public expenditure in 2000 to 16.8 percent in 2009. Interestingly, private investment in Brazilian higher education has increased in tandem with public spending. Largely due to the foundation of new private universities, the number of post-secondary students in Brazil has risen from 1.8 million in 2000 to nearly 6.5 million in 2011. Founded at the same time as a significant surge in funding for public education, the establishment of these new private universities encourages competition between private and public universities while simultaneously holding private universities accountable for rising tuitions.

Critics of universal and free higher education argue that a free system can create a surplus of educated workers that, in some fields, can surpass labor demands. This ideology, which aligns with neoliberalism, suggests that some degree of exclusion is necessary in order to encourage constructive competition between universities to increase the overall level of excellence at any given university. Furthermore, students who do not pay tuition, as in the case of Argentina, could potentially place a lower value on higher education.

But despite Pinochet’s ostensible goal of equalizing the quality of education across economic lines, the privatization of Chilean universities has done little more than institutionalize social inequality. As the Bachelet administration works to develop new education reform, it is likely that the relationship between private and public universities will change. Other regional examples, such as Brazil, suggest that it will be important to establish a codependent relationship between the public and private universities in order to drive competition and increase accessibility. However, with growing frustration after a long history of authoritarian rule and stark socioeconomic inequalities, Chile and its increasingly leftist youth may not heed this advice.